"What? You eat meat? I thought you were vegetarian," stated my ex-boss, now friend, over lunch on Friday.
It seems even though I have never claimed devout vegetarian status, news that I eat meat inspires the same reaction as if I've announced I'm a Catholic nun and - shock, horror! - I occasionally have sex. Since when did food preferences become a religion outside of being part of an actual religious practice? And since when do people get to judge us on these very personal choices? Have my dietary choices become part of an active identity? Fine, then: I'm a lifestyle vegetarian.
A vegetarian, in the strictest sense of the word, does not eat the flesh of any animal, which includes fish and sea food. But I love fish - give me a fennel and lemon stuffed sea bass, or a medium to rare Copper River salmon any day - and I occasionally wake up with a craving for duck breast, lamb shank, or venison with caramelised figs. Am I a vegetarian? Not completely. But mostly. And for me, at least, it's not about the flavour.
Eating less two and four-legged meat - as well as gluten, wheat, yeast, and dairy - has become part of a healthy life style choice for thousands of people across the UK, and not only because of principles or intolerances, but also because people just feel a lot better when they indulge themselves in less of the things they happen to love the most. Some people thrive on meat, but others, like me, do not. We feel sluggish after a Sunday roast and need to spend the rest of the day sleeping. That doesn't discount the pleasure derived from the tenderest bite of Beef Wellington, but, at the end of the day, when the food is trying to digest itself in our delicate bellies, we feel worse for wear.
And then there's the hormones and antibiotics - and goodness knows what else - in the flesh of the poor beast that's been slaughtered, with fear coursing through it's veins, and a supersized dose of cortisol invited to join the after party. I don't know the exact facts about what is in our food these days - there are too many conflicting sources to be completely sure - but I am sceptical of the nourishment it gives us in a world where farmed fish has been known to be fed on rendered cow, and chickens are fed on other chickens. Funnily enough, these animals are vegetarians too.
As far as the religious aspect goes, even Dr. Peter J D'Adamo, creator of the Blood Type Diet, advises sticking to an 80:20 rule. Those with food intolerances aside, the rest of us could be mindful enough to nourish ourselves 80% of the time, and indulge ourselves for the rest.
Many faiths do observe food as part of their religious practice - Islam, Hinduism, Bhuddism, Judaism - and even the most devout yogis err towards a sattvic diet comprised of foods that are considered to enhance clarity and equanimity of mind.
Fine. All very rationally validated choices with clear guiding principles and objectives, even if they can't savour the heavenly moment when of a slice of jamón serrano melts on their tongue. But just because some people are guided by a higher power, some of us have simply chosen a healthier lifestyle where we can operate on the same energy level as a Ribena berry (or an Energiser bunny, depending on what decade you remember).
Many years ago I won a prize for the most unusual dietary request:
I'm a vegetarian, but I eat beef, and strictly no lettuce.
But I don't care. Never you be minding what I do and don't eat.
Just be mindful of what you put in your own mouth.